“MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES”— Cagney as Chaney


Cagney as Chaney

Amos Lassen

James Cagney, a legend in his own right pays homage to legend Lon Chaney in “Man of a Thousand Faces”. Cagney gives a multifaceted portrayal of silent cinema legend Lon Chaney. Chaney captivated audiences with early horror classics such as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Phantom of The Opera”. He gave vivid personifications of grotesque and afflicted characters. His extraordinary make-up skills, and miraculous ability to completely transform earned him international acclaim and the famous nickname of the title of this film.

Chaney led a life plagued by hardship and heartache. This insightful bio-pic traces the arc of the actor’s career from impoverished vaudeville clown to Hollywood stardom. It also captures  the drama of his private life. For the first time, the film is presented in High Definition, with revealing extras.

The film is an almost completely fictionalized telling of the story of Lon Chaney. It captures some of the flavor of silent Hollywood while at the same time misrepresents Chaney’s career and is really a showcase vehicle for the estimable talents of James Cagney, who takes the movie and runs with it proving that historical accuracy isn’t essential for great entertainment.

Vaudeville clown Lon Chaney (James Cagney) has career problems when his wife and stage partner Cleva Creighton Chaney (Dorothy Malone) is said to be a liability to his act. Cleva loses all interest in her marriage and her new baby when she discovers that Lon’s parents can neither hear nor speak. She strikes out on her own and becomes unfaithful. When Lon retaliates by getting her fired from an important singing engagement, Cleva takes poison, ruins her voice and disappears. With the help of agent and sympathetic showgirl Hazel Bennett (Jane Greer), Lon restarts his career as an extra at Universal and works overtime to win custody of his young son Creighton from the courts. That doesn’t happen until his career takes off playing characters with bizarre infirmities and frightening faces, all having come out of his seemingly magical makeup kit.

We see Lon Chaney as a dedicated, warm-hearted and supremely talented trouper  who deals with prejudice, hardship and heartbreak. Chaney’s problems are the kind that would make a lesser man bitter and hurt.

Cagney’s winning personality colors everything here. Prejudices against hereditary handicaps were so strong in earlier eras that Cleva’s fears are entirely understandable. Chaney selfishly hides the information from her and immediately resents her lack of compassion. We are not surprised that she turns against their relationship. His later grudge against Cleva is the only hint in the movie of the real Chaney’s reported unforgiving nature.

It is Cagney’s magnetic presence makes this great entertainment. Dorothy Malone has one of her best roles as the misunderstood Cleva, while the dreamy Jane Greer is extremely patient as the woman waiting to catch Chaney when he’s free. Jim Backus is charming as the agent, dispensing details about the silent film period’s relationship to vaudeville.

Director Joseph Pevney’s 1957 look at Hollywood history is a very good biopic of silent star Lon Chaney even if it is not true.



  Brand new restoration from the original negative by Arrow Films

  High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation

  Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio soundtrack

  Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

  New audio commentary by film scholar Tim Lucas

  The Man Behind a Thousand Faces, a newly filmed look at Lon Chaney and his legacy by the critic Kim Newman 

  Image gallery

  Original trailer

  Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys

  FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Fully Illustrated booklet with a newly commissioned essay by Vic Pratt of the BFI

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